How to Get an Agent’s Attention
You have written your book – and, even better, you’ve made sure that the work itself is worthy of a literary agent’s attention. You have used this brilliant checklist compiled by Electric Literature’s Brandon Taylor on escaping the slushpile: your work has plot, interesting characters, and originality.
Now you just need to show an agent that.*
The first thing we recommend is to imagine that you are the agent – or, more likely, an over-worked intern or assistant – with a pile of submissions and synopses to get through. Whilst you’re keen to find the next genius writer/literary sensation/bestselling novel, you are also tired, have a million other things to do, and have already read a number of other submissions – ranging from good to okay to not-so-great. Even wonderful books at this stage often need more honing and editing, so you’re having to assess each one’s potential, to which there is an art but it does require patience.
Now: as a writer, you want to make it as easy as possible for this reader – this slightly harassed and distracted reader – to see the potential and brilliance of your work.
There are several common mistakes writers make that render their submission much likelier to be overlooked. So we have come up with a list of dos and don’ts to help you avoid the little things that put an agent off immediately, and make it as easy as possible for you to be discovered.
1. Do format clearly – both your submission and synopsis
Clarity is key. It might seem mundane, but this is the first thing that many agents and publishers bemoan: someone will use an ‘interesting’ font, with the text crammed together but huge spaces between paragraphs, or strange margins. Instead of catching a reader’s attention, this can just confuse or, worse, translate badly across devices and software. Spacing is also important – your reader may want to make notes in the margins, between sentences and in paragraphs. And you want the writing to flow easily for them.
You’re safest taking the old reliable route:
- Times New Roman, size 12 or 14, no smaller, no bigger
- Black type
- Double spacing
- Page numbers
- Indent new paragraphs or have a space between them (but not too big!)
- Your name and the date in the header, the title as well if you like
- Page break between chapters
- Send in word and pdf
(Note: some agencies – and publishers – have their own guidelines on formatting. Check before you submit and if required, re-format to fit their guidelines.)
2. Don’t feel you need to get every single detail of the plot into your synopsis
You have a story – it has a beginning, middle and an end (as discussed in the checklist). The synopsis is your chance to sell your story to an agent – and to demonstrate that you are a good writer and able to capture a reader’s attention. Sometimes even the most wonderfully written submission is accompanied by a long, unwieldy summary. You need to get the reader to want to read your writing and feel positive about it before they start on the manuscript proper.
So here are the rules:
- Make sure you’ve read carefully what each different agency wants. Some want 3,000 words, and plenty of detail; some allow a couple of pages; and others want a page at the very most (more a slightly extended blurb than a blow-by-blow account)
- Whatever the word length you’re working to, keep it snappy and compelling
- Choose the essential, most interesting plots and characters – the agent will discover the subsidiary details and subplots when they read the manuscript
- Don’t get bogged down in specific details: if it doesn’t contribute significantly to the meaning, sense or atmosphere of the plot, the synopsis doesn’t need it.
Remember that you are “pitching” it to the agent, so you need to present your story or narrative arc in a clear way. But also remember…:
3. Beware flashy adjectives to describe the story or writing
E.g. “This pacy novel”, “richly descriptive”, “intriguing characters”, “sharp and original”.
This is a classic case of where “Show, Don’t Tell” comes in handy. Showing an agent that your work is sharp, insightful and witty will be so much more persuasive than telling them it is. So keep your synopsis simple, well-written and interesting. And let your writing do the talking.
4. Do research the right agents to send it to
Look up individual agents and see which authors and books they represent. Think of similar books to yours, or books you can imagine being in the same section of a bookshop, and research which agents represented their writers.
This will require a little work as few agents have hard and fast rules as to whom and what they will represent; but by researching them you’ll get a feeling for what they like and will be interested in.
Look at other work they have represented, what they say they are interested in, what their big successes have been, and think about how your work would sit with this. And once you know their name and why they might like your work, you can make sure you…
5. Don’t send a generic cover email
It’s really important to personalise your cover email. Wherever possible:
- Address the cover email to a specific agent, and
- Demonstrate how your book would be suited to them.
6. Do compare it to similar novels
Imagine a copy of your book, finally published. Where does it sit in the bookshop? What kind of reader picks it up off the shelf?
Make a note of the kinds of books you can imagine your own book sitting beside – anything comparable in theme, style, genre or subject – and try to include them in your pitch. This is a really helpful way to help your reader envisage your book. Be specific in your comparison – e.g. “this would appeal to readers of coming-of-age novels like Hot Milk and Sweetbitter” / “fantasy elements similar to Game of Thrones but in a futuristic setting” / “historical novel exploring the politics and intrigues of court life, like Wolf Hall”.
7. Do stick to a word count, if it is requested
Some agents or publishers have set guidelines for submissions (see note above on formatting), which can include a word count. For fiction, it tends to be the opening three chapters or first 10,000 words – but make sure you check that first.
If your agent likes what they read, they’ll ask to see the whole thing.
Now you just have to sit back and wait. Good luck!
* We have focused on agents here as many large publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. But some of the smaller publishing houses do – and this advice also applies if you want to approach them directly. You can find a list of publishers open to unagented submissions here.
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